HOW does one describe the present political power structure? Diarchy? Not really. Some call it a hybrid or more precisely a civil-military partnership. Neither of the two fully defines the existing power matrix, with the civilian authority fast losing its relevance to the swelling support, real or hyped, for the military.
It is more a political disorder — not civil-military cohabitation. The balance of power has long tilted towards the military, yet neither Sharif the prime minister nor Sharif the general is actually in the driving seat. Can this tenuous power calculus last long? It cannot. But it is hard to predict how and what kind of change is in the offing.
It seems extremely difficult for Nawaz Sharif to regain lost ground amidst governance failure and the breaking down of consensus among the major political parties to defend the democratic political process. It was this unity that had protected the system during the PTI-Qadri dharna last year.
But that episode had also exposed the vulnerability of a set-up devoid of any effective leadership and competence. The perception of civil-military leadership being on the same page was mere eyewash. Pictures of the prime minister in a huddle with the army chief every other day did not hide the growing strains over major issues.
The military’s deepening involvement in state affairs and public expectations could lead to a slippery path.
Meanwhile, the clout of the military has grown further in the aftermath of the Peshawar school massacre and the formation of apex committees to oversee the implementation on the National Action Plan. The prime minister appeared quite happy with the military taking over the entire responsibility of internal security as well, but this has political ramifications. The broadening of the Karachi operation further enhanced the military’s role. That also caused an end to the politics of ‘reconciliation’ between the PML-N and the PPP that had helped the last parliament complete its term and the unprecedented transfer of power from one elected government to another.
Ironically, the growing shadow of the military over the political landscape has further divided political forces instead of uniting them. That has once again elevated the military to the position of sole arbiter of power. The tightening of the noose around the PPP and the MQM is indicative of the shape of things to come.
The sudden activation of NAB and the FIA and the widening of the corruption investigation against political leaders are certainly not incidental. It could not have been possible without the active backing of the military. The action against the Sindh provincial government officials closely connected to the top PPP leaders seems only the first step.
It has already forced Zardari and some other party leaders to flee the country. The Rangers are calling the shots in Karachi and the role of the provincial government is marginalised. The PPP has accused the federal agencies of selective accountability.
But the situation could turn more volatile with reports of the Sindh government considering the curtailment of the Rangers’ powers, barring them from taking action against political leaders. That would certainly bring the confrontation between the PPP and the military to a head. It will, however, be most interesting to see the response of the federal government in that situation.
Surely, the military-backed accountability is not going to be restricted only to the two Sindh-based parties. Its extension to Punjab will, however, have strong political implications particularly if the investigation is extended to members of the PML-N government. In this situation, the warning by the prime minister against a “conspiracy” to destabilise his government is quite loaded. Power is slowly slipping out of his hands.
Unsurprisingly, the popularity graph of Gen Raheel Sharif has catapulted with the growing power vacuum and widening chasm among the major political parties. Such a high public profile for a chief of army staff is unprecedented even in this country where army rule has been a norm.
Surely this is to a large extent due to his role as military commander leading from the front, but it is also to do with the massive publicity campaign undertaken by the ISPR. The life-size hoardings of the general springing up across the country is not just a spontaneous show of public love; it is also orchestrated.
Meanwhile, the military’s influence over the electronic media has perhaps become more effective than ever. That has also helped a great deal in building the image of the general as a saviour. It is certainly not hard to sell given the rising public frustration against bad governance and the ineptitude of the civilian leadership. Not surprisingly, the campaign against corruption has put the political leadership on the defensive. The slogan to save democracy seems to have little effect on the general masses.
Surely all this public eulogising could be heady for anyone. Gen Raheel Sharif may not have any ambition for power, but the military’s deepening involvement in all affairs of the state and high public expectations could lead to a slippery path making direct intervention unavoidable.
There is little doubt that power is up for grabs. That has happened in the past too, with jubilant masses greeting a military takeover. As in the past, there would hardly be any resistance from political parties barring a few. Imran Khan is already inviting the Rangers (read army) to extend the anti-corruption campaign to the entire country. It is simply an invitation for military intervention.
The warning by Raza Rabbani, the Senate chairman, that constitutional safeguards against a military takeover have become redundant sounds ominous. He is absolutely right in saying that “the people can protect democracy provided they are given ownership of the system”: It is for the political leaders to ponder.
It has never been difficult for the military to take over power in Pakistan. But it is never easy to fix things with a magic wand. The lessons of the past military rule are apparent.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 23rd , 2015